AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW
The Australian Financial Review (AFR) began as a weekly newspaper in 1951. It was initiated by John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd, the publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, in response to perceived threats that a stand-alone financial publication was about to be launched by Associated Newspapers Ltd, publisher of the Sydney afternoon tabloid the Sun.
Jack Horsfall (1912–76), an Australian journalist working in London for the Economist, had been hired by Fairfax in 1950 to return to Sydney and strengthen the Herald’s finance and business coverage. He was appointed editor of the new publication.
The first edition, on 16 August, made it clear the AFR was published as an adjunct to the Herald. The tension between the vigorous new tabloid-sized paper and the mother broadsheet took several decades to resolve as subsequent AFR editors sought to exert their independence from the editorial line of the Herald, which was dominated by the Herald’s financial editor Tom Fitzgerald, who had made the Herald’s finance pages very influential. The AFR’s initial cover price was an expensive 1 shilling.
Horsfall lasted less than a year as editor, but not before the AFR had created an early reputation for well-informed coverage of Australian and international business and economic affairs. Its first major story was the 1951 contractionary ‘horror Budget’, which initiated a boom/bust cycle that was to convulse Australia’s post-war economy.
The AFR’s 1951 Budget edition sold 12,000 copies at a time when the Herald and other major metropolitan papers sold around 300,000 daily. The paper was able to attract high-profile business and academic commentators, and ran lengthy profiles of prominent business leaders.
By the end of its inaugural year as a weekly, the AFR’s circulation had dropped to 10,850, and throughout most of the 1950s it sold below 10,000 weekly. However, continuous marketing and the newspaper’s national reach allowed its circulation to strengthen later in the decade. By 1960 it was publishing 21,400 copies weekly and was attracting more than double the volume of advertising it had achieved three years earlier.
In 1960, Fairfax management appointed a brilliant younger journalist from the Herald’s finance staff, Max Newton, as managing editor of the AFR. Newton firstly convinced Fairfax to publish bi-weekly, adding a Tuesday edition to complement Thursday’s publication. This was to shore up its defences against an attack from Sir Frank Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press, which in May 1961 had begun publishing an Australian edition of the British broadsheet the Financial Times on a Wednesday.
Newton hired a group of young guns, including future editor Maximillian Walsh, David Love, Alan Wood, Albert Smith and Michael Baume (later a senator) to strengthen coverage and editorial quality, and by October 1963 had convinced management to take the newspaper daily. Newton was impressed at the way the London Financial Times had widened its coverage to include the political economy, and the AFR’s content reflected his wider interests, including the arts as well as business and politics.
Australia was recovering from its worst recession and credit squeeze in decades, and the paper’s profitability as a national bi-weekly had bounced back. But the move almost sent it broke. Newton, like Horsfall, lasted less than a year in the new role. He was lured by the emergent newspaper tycoon Rupert Murdoch to start a daily general purpose national newspaper, the Australian, in 1964.
The new editor, Vic Carroll, was well suited to the difficult circumstances facing the AFR following Newton’s defection. Throughout the 1960s, he steered the paper’s coverage of business, the property market, the stockmarket and exposure of corporate malfeasance. Carroll strengthened Newton’s approach to covering areas of the political economy that were not part of mainstream journalism, including issues such as banking consolidation, manufacturing tariffs, and the importance of seasonally adjusted statistics.
Carroll was still at the helm during a spectacular boom in nickel stocks in late 1969, when ordinary public stockmarket speculators began buying the paper in their thousands. Circulation reached 49,000 in early 1970 (from 19,500 when it first published daily) and the paper was turning a significant profit. The following two decades of the 1970s and 1980s saw a consolidation of the AFR’s position within Australian newspaper circles. The paper’s obdurate editorial opposition to industry assistance, labour featherbedding, business flaccidity and government indecision, as well as its sceptical approach to the role of state governments, made it a strong advocate for change.
In 1987, the AFR was briefly sold to the Western Australian entrepreneur Robert Holmes à Court after the publicly listed John Fairfax Group was privatised by Warwick Fairfax Junior, but the deal fell through as the stockmarket collapsed in October 1987.
The AFR’s circulation peaked at 85,000 daily in the 1990s. Its international reach had also widened, with 10 foreign correspondents. It had expanded its coverage of the money and currency markets, as well as futures and commodities, and had a lively line-up of opinionated columnists, including leading politicians, business critics and economic commentators. Its journalists regularly featured in the Walkley Awards.
However, challenges were emerging from two quarters. Several major market crashes, notably the so-called ‘tech wreck’ in the late 1990s and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008–09, undermined readership. But the greatest threat lay in the disruptive technology of the emergent internet. Like many international newspapers, the AFR responded to the opening up of vast, easily accessible and usually free digital information sources by providing an online version, produced behind a paywall. But its success, expensive by newspaper standards, proved to be lack-lustre. By 2013, the paid circulation of the paper itself was 65,000, while its foreign bureaux had contracted to two journalists.
In 2013, Fairfax Media sought to achieve economies across all its mastheads. The group rearranged business coverage in sister papers the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times by having AFR copy supplied to them daily.
Still a dominant voice in Australian business and political circles in its own right, paradoxically it had become the mainstay of finance and business coverage for Fairfax’s metropolitan newspapers, more than 60 years after the fledgling weekly finance newspaper emerged from under the wings of the dominant Sydney Morning Herald.
REFs: AFR, 25 November 2013; G. Noonan, ‘The Establishment of the Australian Financial Review, 1951–1970, and Its Impact on Public Policy’ (MA thesis, 2003).